Mount and Blade is a refreshingly original FPS-like game, which recreates medieval combat - that is with a lot of horses, and without any magic.
It's a bit of an overstatement to call vanilla Mount and Blade a "game" - it's basically a battle engine with a small and not particularly interesting world. Fortunately a large modder community developed around it, and some of the mods like The Last Days feel like complete games. I played mostly vanilla and The Last Days, in which you can take part in the War of the Ring.
What I like most about Mount and Blade is that it has the balls to break with Dungeons and Dragons tradition of fireballs, healing potions, and million-HP player characters. A quick look at players' skillset is shocking. The most useful skills are:
- Wound Treatment - increases healing speed of you and your army
- Riding - lets you ride horses faster and lets you use more difficult horses
- First Aid - partially restores HP lost in battle to you and other heroes
- Surgery - lets you save some percent of soldiers who would otherwise die
- Horse Archery - reduces accuracy penalties for shooting while riding a horse (penalties depend on how fast you ride, just sitting on a horse doesn't affect your accuracy)
- Power Draw - increases archery damage and lets you use more difficult bows
- Tactics - gives your army better position in fight
- Leadership - lets you command a larger force and reduces their cost
The strategy which is by far the most powerful is "Horsebowman". It works best with a fast horse, a war bow, two large quivers of bodkin arrows, and some two-hander sword (or some other long slashing weapon), but any horse, any bow, and any arrows - that is equipment you already have if you start the game as a hunter - will suffice. As a horsebowman you don't need any support, you simply wait till the enemies come close, then shoot them in their faces, or legs if they have shields, and ride away a bit. This way as a level 10 character with pretty cheap equipment you can massacre any infantry unit of any size, peasant or elite. You can also defeat most cavalry - as they typically use slow horses, have lower riding skill than you and most importantly - instead of stopping and fighting when they reach you they simply pass by. A two-hander sword is an useful backup for cases where bow is ineffective. After you get a high level your Horse Archery skill will let you effectively shoot cavalry as you ride. At lower levels it's better to maneuver and cut them with the sword or stop the horse to shoot them. The only major danger are enemy archers, whom you can reliably kill from afar only on very high level.
The second most powerful strategy is doing anything else from a horse. Two-hander weapon, one hander and a shield, lance, whatever. You can even try throwing stones or charging with your horse without weapons - it's still far better than the next strategy.
And the least efficient strategy is not having a horse. The main reason is that it's almost impossible to win a fight against multiple infantrymen at the same time. You never have such a problem on a horse, because you're faster than anyone else and the AI cavalry is too dumb to stop and fight when they reach you.
A list of things needed to restore balance follows. Most of them also increase realism, but only as a side effect. I am not a big fan of "realism". In any halfway realistic game the consequence of getting slashed or shot would be a few months of reconvalescence, with high chance of dying of infection like tuberculosis in the mean time, and in any case high likelihood of recovery never being quite complete - in any war there are about three times as many wounded as dead.
The first thing I'd change to give infantry a chance is letting player have 3 infantrymen in exchange for 1 knight. Right now the player has a choice - either build a small but deadly cavalry unit, or equally small but useless infantry. But cavalry is a far greater organizational challenge - you need horses (definitely more than one per knight), support staff and so on.
Another thing that unbalances the game is the slot system. You have 4 weapon slots. Bow and two quivers (one quiver is not enough) take 3 slots, two-hander weapon takes 1, one-hander+shield takes two. That results in people using two-handers from a horse. The slot system should be changed so that two-hander takes as much space as one-hander+shield, and two-handers should be forbidden on a horse anyway. Making two-handers occupy two slots would be a good idea. Then it would be possible to have combinations like:
- bow, 2 quivers, one-hander sword
- pike (2 slots), one-hander sword, shield
- halberd (2 slots), one-hander sword, shield
- spear, one-hander sword, shield, 1 bag of javelins (popular ancient setup)
- spear, shield, two-hander sword
- lance, shield, one-hander sword, 1 bag of javelins
- one-hander sword, shield, 2 bags of throwing axes
- heavy axe (2 slots), 2 bags of throwing axes
- bow, 2 quivers, two-hander sword
- lance, shield, two-hander sword, 1 bag of javelins
Another change I'd do is make thrusting attacks blockable only by shields, not by other weapons. It looks really silly when pike is blocked by a sword and gives way too much power to slashing weapons.
Going further with changes, horse charging could be much more powerful, a few knights charging through a bunch of peasant should reliably knoch them all down. Right now horseback slasher is far more powerful than horseback lancer. Reducing horses' maneuvrability and acceleration in exchange for higher top speed would also nerf horsebowman and horse slasher a bit, greatly improving chances of horse lancers and infantry pikemen.
One more thing would be seriously nerfing archers by seriously reducing bow accuracy (the idea of reliably headshoting from 50 meters is absurd) and letting infantry attack using shields. Right now an archer can draw his bow and wait for the enemy to start the attack, then he releases an arrow and headshot kills the enemy.
The details would need to be play-tested, but I think such changes would make more strategies playable, and the game more realistic and more fun.
Strategies that should be balanced after the proposed changes:
- Horse lancer
- Horse slasher with a one-hander + shield
- Horse archer
- Infantry pikeman (thrust only, no shield), spearman (thrust only, shield), or halberdier (thrust/slash, no shield)
- Infantry warrior with a one-hander (slash/thrust) and shield
- Infantry archer
- Commander of cavalry unit
- Commander of infantry unit
And there should be no biorifles in Unreal Tournament !